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Sensemaker: Steppe change

Sensemaker: Steppe change

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Prince Andrew was reported to be considering an out-of-court settlement with Virginia Giuffre, even though he denies her accusations of sexual assault. 
  • Fans queued all day for tickets to early matches in the first Africa Cup of Nations football tournament to be held in Cameroon in 50 years, which starts on Sunday.
  • The actor Ryan Reynolds appeared with Winnie the Pooh in a mobile phone ad, a day after Pooh fell out of copyright and into the public domain. 

Steppe change

With apologies to Billy Crystal, something’s spooking the Kazakhs. At first it seemed to be nothing more than a spike in the cost of liquified petroleum gas, but fuel price riots three days ago in Almaty spiralled quickly into Kazakhstan’s most serious and widespread political violence in 30 years. 

More than 3,000 protesters are reported detained in the past 24 hours. The unloved regime built by ex-president Nursultan Nazarbayev and now run by his hand-picked successor, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, claims to have “liquidated” (killed) 26 rioters in retaliation for the deaths of 18 police. Witnesses spoke of smoke and flames coming from the presidential residence and pools of blood outside it. There are rumours Nazarbayev has fled.

Last night Tokayev said order in Almaty, the country’s biggest city, was largely restored after 2,500 Russian and Belarusian “peacekeepers” flew in in military transports. There was more gunfire this morning after he told security forces to shoot to kill, but until today Tokayev has been on the defensive:

  • On Tuesday he sacked his prime minister and cabinet.
  • On Wednesday he called on the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (otherwise known as Russia) to help him get tough with the rioters.
  • On Thursday he demoted Nazarbayev, removing him from the life chairmanship of the national security council to which he retreated from the presidency three years ago.

So what? After three decades of enforced calm, Kazakhstan (population 18 million, land area roughly the same as western Europe) is suddenly a geopolitical laboratory too:

  • Putin is using the crisis to normalise Russian military intervention in his near-abroad. In principle the CSTO is an answer to Nato. In practice he has used it as a police delivery mechanism for which he will demand payback.
  • That doesn’t mean he’ll welcome the assignment: it’s a distraction from his efforts to project force in Ukraine, and it’s a response to unrest that echoes Belarus and could be copied in Russia.
  • Kazakhstan has been Central Asia’s big, inert ballast tank ever since so-called independence in 1991; a place of wild beauty, staggering corruption, slowly rising incomes and some enthusiastic bitcoin mining. If it opts for revolution, the whole region could.


  • This is, admittedly, unlikely. Even before Tokayev’s claim to have restored order, these protests appeared leaderless and uncoordinated.
  • They are being quashed according to a tried and tested Kremlin strategy: shoot, clear, jail, hold.
  • On the other hand, Tokayev effectively admitted early on that he couldn’t trust his own security forces after some were seen abandoning their weapons and walking away from Almaty’s central square. For people of Tokayev’s generation that recalls the crazy days of 1991.

To note: cracks have been appearing in ex-Soviet Central Asia’s placid facade ever since the death of the tyrant Islam Karimov in neighbouring Uzbekistan five years ago. His successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, didn’t get, or read, the “how to be a dictator” memo and has been loosening state controls in pursuit of growth. Kyrgyzstan, another neighbour, hosted its latest revolution just two years ago. 

To watch: Kremlin statements about Kazakhstan’s 20 per cent ethnic Russian minority. 20 per cent is big, and Putin has already used smaller “oppressed” Russian minorities as a pretext for high-impact meddling in Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania. If this was a movie it would have to be The Empire Strikes Back

covid by numbers

24 NHS trusts in England, one in six of the total, that have declared critical incidents due to Covid pressures.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Free to fraud
The pandemic has given international fraudsters a breathing space. Fines levied against global financial institutions halved in value last year because Covid “thwarted investigations”, according to City AM. You might have thought money launderers and data thieves were relatively insulated from the virus, and that those pursuing them could do so largely from the safety of home offices. But Fenergo, a compliance firm, says the total value of the fines it tracks fell by 49 per cent to $5.4 billion from $10.6 billion despite a whopping $2 billion penalty for UBS from a Paris court for helping rich French clients dodge taxes. The UK also bucked the trend with big fines for NatWest and HSBC for anti-money laundering failures. Elsewhere, white collar crime police seem to have taken the year off. For context, even $10.6 billion isn’t much next to the global financial services sector’s turnover last year of roughly $22.5 trillion.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Red wall warning
Nigel Farage, the Brexit visionary, has a warning for Boris Johnson about the Red Wall seats in northern England that helped secure his thumping majority in 2019. “A revolt on the Right is brewing, and it poses a huge threat to the Prime Minister,” Farage writes in the Telegraph. For now the only hard evidence he has points to more of a revolt on the left than the right: a couple of mid-term polls show Labour 16 points ahead on average in these constituencies, and Labour’s Keir Starmer beating Johnson in a popularity contest in Labour heartlands. But Farage’s main point is that ex-Labour voters are fickle. As he saw when running Ukip, “once the generational link with Labour was broken, switching became easy”. He thinks those switchers are indignant about an incomplete Brexit, cross-Channel migrants and rising energy bills, and that they’ll scupper Johnson’s premiership as they did Cameron’s and May’s. Oh, and he plans to “increase the help I’m giving to Richard Tice,” the Reform UK leader who’s taken on the anti-immigrant mantle. Tice won’t be pleased, but Johnson won’t be either. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Coding in Afghanistan
Young Afghan women frozen out of higher education by the Taliban are learning computer coding in encrypted online classes crowdfunded by supporters and with content donated by a Norwegian programming firm. Men are welcome in the classes, but it’s the opportunity afforded women in a country where so much progress towards gender equality has been reversed in the past six months that stands out in an MIT Technology Review piece on a coding bootcamp called CodeWeekend. The Taliban’s return left 19 year-old Zarifa Sherzoy tired and depressed, but since she started coding in October, she says, “my days are good”. CodeWeekend needs funds for 3G web access and electricity. This seems to be its gofundme page. 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Dementia boom
A growing and ageing global population could mean a three-fold increase in the number of dementia sufferers worldwide by the middle of the century. Risk factors thought to increase the risk of dementia include smoking, obesity and diabetes, and researchers for a new study in The Lancet Public Health added seven million cases to their projected total of 157 million by 2050 because of these factors. But they also subtracted nearly as many on the assumption more people would have access to education steering them away from unhealthy lifestyles. A cure remains distant. A decade of research based on hopes of dementia drugs targeting amyloid plaque build-up in the brain failed to produce any promising new therapies. Yet another reason to exercise and eat more fruit and veg. 

Separately, UK health officials have identified the country’s first human case of avian flu. He’s 79, lives in Devon and befriended 160 local Muscovy ducks that have now had to be culled. His name is Alan Gosling. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Offset crazy
Much of the environmental movement insists carbon offsets are greenwash at best, if not a license to pollute. But most government and corporate net zero plans depend on them, and markets are getting a taste for them. The FT has numbers from S&P Global Platts showing the cost of nature-based offsets (mainly tree-planting and forest conservation) more than trebling in the past six months as demand outstrips supply. The sector is unregulated and one result is the availability of offsets that claim to sequester carbon but do no such thing. But monitoring is improving, pressure for enforced global standards is increasing, Article 6 talks at Cop26 have brought those standards closer – and corporates are wising up to the PR risks of doing business with offset cowboys. This particular sort of inflation is no bad thing.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Edited and produced by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Vladimir Tretyakov/AP/Shutterstock, Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Valery SharifulinTASS via Getty Images, Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images